The Late Show and the Private Eye

Any good detective story focuses more on the detective than the story.  If the detective, cop, private eye, what have you, is interesting then the plot will be interesting, while remaining oddly secondary to the characters.  It’s how so many private dick yarns that tend towards the confusing side still work as entertainment.  The most notable example is The Big Sleep and all its half-apocryphal accompanying stories and legends wherein the point isn’t whether the story makes sense or not, the point is whether you care.  If you care, you’re probably paying attention to the wrong thing.  You should be focusing on Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge.   The story should only act to propel the characters along so we can watch them for longer periods of time.  Robert Benton’s The Late Show understands this exactly and gives us one of the best of the genre and one of the best movies of the seventies.

The Late Show 001

The seventies saw a reinvention of detective fiction with three in particular, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Late Show, each taking a different route.  Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye sought to deconstruct the private eye, and noir, in one big California-Cool package.  Chinatown presented it as a reinvention within the traditional outlines of the form and The Late Show presented it as is, set in the present day of 1977 with its lead private dick, Ira Wells, old and limping, hard of hearing but still able to wield a gun, talk tough and call every lady he meets “doll.”

The story of The Late Show begins when Ira’s landlady, Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson), knocks on his door (he rents a room in a boarding house) and announces he has a guest.  Ira doesn’t hear the knock at first as he’s busy doing a crossword while the late show plays loudly in the background.  When he does answer, he finds it’s his partner, Harry Regan (Howard Duff), who looks like he’s been out all night, prompting Ira to comment on the bender he’s apparently been on.  That’s when blood starts pouring from his mouth and it becomes clear he’s been on no bender, he’s been shot.  Ira lays him down, has Mrs. Schmidt call the police, and scolds Harry for letting himself get shot.  Then, with only a few words, Ira says his goodbyes to his old partner in what has to be the most affecting opening scenes to any private dick movie ever.  And it only works because the characters are older.  Younger partners, like Spade and Archer, would have no such visible emotional attachment, but the emotion that barely seeps out from Ira indicates a long, hard-knock life that’s been through everything and probably just wishes that his partner could go in his sleep at a comfortable old age.  Hell, he made it this long.  Maybe Ira still will.

This is how the movie opens and immediately we have the setup used in so many detective/buddy movies before; the partner who gets killed and the partner left alive searching for justice.  And, really, that’s how the story goes.  It’s just that this time, the private dick is a lot older and a lot wiser.  He knows when to take chances and when to pull back.  When he’s approached at Harry’s funeral by an old friend he’s worked with off and on for sixteen years about a lady’s missing cat, he pulls back.  The old friend is Charlie Hatter (the great Bill Macy) and the lady is Margo (Lily Tomlin) and her cat was taken by a man who’s threatening to kill it if Margo doesn’t give him back the money she stole from him which she says she only borrowed but which she got in the first place by selling hot goods across town that… and that’s where the “plot” starts becoming tangled.  As with any good detective story, it gets a little confusing almost immediately.   Charlie has ulterior motives, Margo just wants her cat back and Ira senses that all of this is somehow mixed up with his partner’s death (he’s right).

The Late Show 003

The plot only becomes more labyrinthine from there but the characters are sensational.  Ira and Charlie have a relationship that time has enhanced by stripping away all the unnecessary clutter and leaving only that which is absolutely necessary.  They speak to other in short expository sentences, leaving the BS at the door.  Margo, on the other hand, blathers on about anything and everything and takes minutes to get to the point, often prompting Ira to turn to Charlie and ask him to give it to him straight, which he does, acting as a kind of stripped-down interpreter of Margo’s California lingo.

The characters that Ira encounters along the way obviously tend to the seedy side of things and the two  who comprise the primary focus of his attention, Ron Birdwell and Lamar, his personal assistant (i.e. thug/henchman), are two of the slimiest characters in town.  Birdwell sells stolen goods and Lamar beats up people for him while keeping up his reputation as a dedicated follower of fashion.  Lamar is played by the ubiquitous John Considine perfectly, with a smugness so palpable the moment he first appears on the screen, he’s insufferable.  Birdwell is played by Eugene Roche and if you don’t recognize that name, check out his IMDB page here.  You’ll immediately recognize the face.  Roche never got the awards or even the nominations but he was, in my book, one of the best character actors of the seventies.  He excels as the sleazy Birdwell and when he offers bribes in the form of stolen goods, rather than the money made from them, it makes perfect sense.  He’d rather play the salesman than deal it straight, make the customer think they’re getting a bargain instead of a lemon.  Even in bribery, the man is out to make a sale.

Birdwell also has a wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is involved in the scheming, double-crossing and plotting as much as, if not more so, than her husband.  Interestingly, while ostensibly being the femme fatale of the movie, her part is small and purposely upstaged by the nice girl, Margo, throughout.  Cassidy is good but Tomlin steals the show.

The real story of The Late Show is how well Carney and Tomlin work together.  Carney won Best Actor just three years prior for his role in Harry and Tonto but he’s even better here.  Tomlin starts off a little shaky but becomes increasingly affecting as the movie progresses until, finally, she seems like the perfect match for Ira.  And in the end, she portrays a vulnerability that equals her work in Nashville, for which she was nominated, without missing a beat.  Robert Benton, the writer and director, would win big time at the Oscars two years later for Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie I very much like, but I’ll take this one over it any day of the week.

The Late Show 002

The Late Show proved that a good private dick story doesn’t depend on plot but characters, plain and simple.  And knowing how to end your story.  The last shot of the movie seems to understand, and expect that the audience understands, the genre and its origins in classic Hollywood and, in a small way, pays tribute to it.   I suppose we could have had sequels, if anyone had cared, but that would have ruined the idea.  This was a one time deal with Ira and Margo and in the final scene, as they sit together, nowhere to go, and allude to the possibility of more, we know it’s over.  The late show will come to an end, as it always does, the station will sign off and Ira will gently fade away.   And it’s a loss, a great loss, for we won’t soon see the likes of him again.

11 Responses The Late Show and the Private Eye
Posted By swac44 : December 26, 2012 2:21 pm

While not as good as The Late Show, but in the same vein (and from only a few years later), I also recall enjoying The Big Fix starring Richard Dreyfuss as a private eye who came out of the ’60s counter-culture (with F. Murray Abraham as a character based on Abbie Hoffman).

Posted By swac44 : December 26, 2012 2:21 pm

While not as good as The Late Show, but in the same vein (and from only a few years later), I also recall enjoying The Big Fix starring Richard Dreyfuss as a private eye who came out of the ’60s counter-culture (with F. Murray Abraham as a character based on Abbie Hoffman).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 26, 2012 4:26 pm

I watched The Big Fix years ago (probably when it came out) so I remember next to nothing about it. I’m going to check it out again, I think. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 26, 2012 4:26 pm

I watched The Big Fix years ago (probably when it came out) so I remember next to nothing about it. I’m going to check it out again, I think. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted By Emgee : December 26, 2012 4:41 pm

Always loved this movie, a really valid update of the noir genre.
The chemistry between Carney and Tomlin is genuine, and thank the gods they didn’t go for an Odd Couple-type approach.
Both moving and entertaining, just what any movie should be.

Posted By Emgee : December 26, 2012 4:41 pm

Always loved this movie, a really valid update of the noir genre.
The chemistry between Carney and Tomlin is genuine, and thank the gods they didn’t go for an Odd Couple-type approach.
Both moving and entertaining, just what any movie should be.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 26, 2012 7:33 pm

Well put, Emgee. There really is a genuine connection between the two and they don’t waste the audience’s time playing up the culture gap between them. As I get older, I find Carney’s performance better and better. He really was a great actor.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 26, 2012 7:33 pm

Well put, Emgee. There really is a genuine connection between the two and they don’t waste the audience’s time playing up the culture gap between them. As I get older, I find Carney’s performance better and better. He really was a great actor.

Posted By Doug : December 27, 2012 3:39 am

” If the detective, cop, private eye, what have you, is interesting then the plot will be interesting, while remaining oddly secondary to the characters.”
Slightly off on a tangent, but I watched “The Mothman Prophesies”
again last night, not so much for the scary story, but the fine acting from Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and the solid production values-it’s a well made film.
“The Late Show” is on Amazon Prime-I may get a chance to watch it tomorrow.

Posted By Doug : December 27, 2012 3:39 am

” If the detective, cop, private eye, what have you, is interesting then the plot will be interesting, while remaining oddly secondary to the characters.”
Slightly off on a tangent, but I watched “The Mothman Prophesies”
again last night, not so much for the scary story, but the fine acting from Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and the solid production values-it’s a well made film.
“The Late Show” is on Amazon Prime-I may get a chance to watch it tomorrow.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Let Us Now Praise Shamus Men : November 20, 2013 2:01 pm

[…] book ends in 1971 so he missed out on the chance to include another personal favorite of mine, The Late Show, which I wrote up here last December (Since I have my full review linked to its title, I […]

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies